A 67-year-old Tipperary Town businessman was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment at the Circuit Court last Friday for sexually assaulting two teenage relatives of his when he was aged in his 30s.
Judge Orla Crowe imposed the jail term on Michael Ryan of Rathanny, Tipperary at a sentencing hearing at Kilkenny Circuit Court and placed him on the Sex Offenders Register for ten years.
The sentencing hearing followed a trial in November when Mr Ryan was convicted by a jury of five counts of indecently assaulting Vanessa Merrigan on dates unknown between December 22, 1987 and December 21, 1990 and one count of sexual assault of her younger sister, Sarah O’Connell, on a date unknown between August 12, 1992 and August 11, 1994.
Mr Ryan, who founded and ran a garage business on the Link Road in Tipperary for 40 years, pleaded not guilty to all the offences.
At the request of the two injured parties, the judge issued an order at the end of the sentencing hearing lifting reporting restrictions protecting their right to anonymity. This allows Mr Ryan to be named in media reporting of the case.
Judge Crowe praised the “dignity and grace” Ms Merrigan and Ms O’Connell displayed as they gave their moving victim impact statements.
She criticised the “huge breach of trust” committed by the defendant and described his breach of the victims’ innocence as “unspeakably wrong”.
Ms Merrigan was aged between 14 and 16 when the offences were committed while Ms O’Connell was aged between 14 and 15-years-old.
The sentencing hearing began on Friday, December 10 and concluded last Friday following a week-long adjournment during which Judge Crowe considered testimonials and character references the defence submitted on behalf of Mr Ryan.
Garda Sharon Moloney of Tipperary Division Protective Services Unit told the court the victims’ father owned a petrol station on the Link Road in Tipperary where Vanessa used to work after school and at weekends.
Michael Ryan, who was their mother’s first cousin, built a garage business next door and at some point Vanessa was requested to help with his accounts.
Garda Moloney said on September 2, 2018, Ms Merrigan attended at Tipperary Garda Station where she outlined she was indecently assaulted by Mr Ryan. Her sister Sarah attended the station at a later date and outlined one incident of being sexually assaulted by the defendant. They both made statements to the gardaí and an investigation commenced.
Mr Ryan was arrested on February 19, 2019 and interviewed at Tipperary Garda Station where he made no admissions though he answered all questions put to him. Garda Moloney said it was the defence’s attitude in the trial that the complainants fabricated the offences; that their evidence was false and they colluded in relation to these complaints.
She described how four of the indecent assault offences committed against Ms Merrigan occurred at Mr Ryan’s garage at Link Road and one occurred at Bansha Woods where he brought her at lunch time one day while he took a car out for a test run.
The final indecent assault happened after Mr Ryan asked Ms Merrigan to paint a logo on a new extension in his garage to advertise the business. She went to him shortly after this and told him it had to stop. She remembered it had been easy to do and felt bad she didn’t do it sooner.
Garda Moloney said Ms Merrigan didn’t report the assaults earlier to the gardaí because she believed it would have destroyed her family as Michael Ryan was a relative and in business with her family. She also thought she would get into trouble and her relationship with her father was bad at the time. She also didn’t want to destroy the defendant’s family as he had young children at the time.
In relation to the sexual assault on Ms O’Connell, Garda Moloney said Vanessa was informed by her mother that Sarah was at Michael Ryan’s garage because she had instructed her to get a lift home from him. Vanessa went to the garage as she was worried about her sister. When she reached the garage, the big doors were closed, so she entered the building via a smaller door.
She saw Michael Ryan in the office standing close to Sarah and she knew by both their faces that something had happened. Sarah had a look of shock and horror on her face while Michael Ryan looked very guilty.
Later, Vanessa told her sister about what happened to her and Sarah disclosed what how she had been sexually assaulted at the garage that day.
Both injured parties gave victim impact statements to the court and at times fought back tears as they recounted the huge effect the assaults had on their lives. They also described the upset felt by their family, particularly their mother.
Vanessa recalled how her mother, who died a few months ago, felt betrayed, confused and profoundly hurt that a person she placed utter trust in would betray that trust in such a manner.
In her statement, Sarah O’Connell recalled the fear she felt in Mr Ryan’s office and of how powerless, angry and upset she felt that this had happened.
At the time she felt she couldn’t tell anyone. She was afraid. He was a close relative and she couldn’t even begin to imagine the impact saying anything about it would have on her family. Also, her sister hadn’t said anything about what happened her.
The fear she felt at Michael Ryan’s garage stayed with her. She suffered nightmares about being attacked and recalled going to a fortune teller in her late teens/early 20s seeking information as to whether this may happen. She believed she was desperately seeking some reassurance.
She recalled how the defendant visited their home and had tea with her parents for years after the incident. She hated and resented these visits. “It felt unfair and wrong that I would have to see him in my house as if what he did wasn’t bad enough.”
She recalled the defendant was so comfortable and confident in his manner when he took advantage of her. “He seemed to have no fear of being caught or someone finding out.”
Ms O’Connell recounted that she tried to put it behind her but was worried the defendant would do the same to other young people and felt ashamed she wasn’t brave enough to speak out.
Ms O’Connell said the past number of years had been difficult as she faced her fears and stood up for the “teenage me”. She decided to report the assault to the gardaí because what Michael Ryan did was “utterly wrong” and he had “violated his position of power and trust as an adult, relative and neighbour”.
Vanessa Merrigan spoke of how difficult she found it to write the victim impact statement as she had to go back to the child she was at 14 years of age and relive what she felt at that time. “When I go there in my mind, I feel physically sick,” she told the court.
“I am now 47-years-old and it has taken all these years for me to be able to really verbalise and accept what you did to me. For years, I felt dirty; felt like I had done something wrong, was ashamed of myself and my body.”
She recalled the pain of having to “smile politely” and “make polite conversation” when Mr Ryan visited their home and how she had to invite him to important occasions in her life because her parents wouldn’t have understood if she didn’t and she couldn’t tell anyone what happened.
“You took my trust in you, years ago built through the trust my parents placed in you, and abused it in the worst way any man could. You instilled in me a warped view of everything I thought to be good. All men for a long, long time were potential predators in my eyes regardless of who they were.”
Ms Merrigan continued that when her children were young and in their teens, she could not truly trust any man who became close to them but she knew these thoughts weren’t normal. The defendant stole her youth and also part of her adulthood and it had taken all this time to address it, accept it and heal.
Both sisters also highlighted in their victim impact statements the ordeal Mr Ryan’s not guilty plea had put them and their families through as they had to relive the trauma of what happened them again in the trial.
Defence counsel Colman Cody SC said his client maintained his innocence but recognised the court must act in accordance with the jury’s verdict.
He said Mr Ryan had no previous convictions and, apart from this matter, he had never come to the adverse notice of the gardaí. The interval between the timing of the offences he was convicted of and actual reporting of them spanned a period of 30 years. During the intervening period he never committed an offence. Mr Cody argued this entitled Mr Ryan to some mitigation in the sentence the court imposed.
In relation to his arrest, he pointed out that his client made arrangements with the gardaí to meet them by appointment. Mr Ryan denied the allegations during the interviews but co-operated with gardaí at all times. Mr Cody said his client was a hard worker who built up and ran a motor repairs business for 40 years. The day-to-day running of that business has now been passed onto his son.
The senior counsel also submitted letters and testimonials from Mr Ryan’s family and a number of people in the community. They showed the care and support he provided to his family and in the community.
Mr Cody continued that Mr Ryan had significant health issues and he submitted a doctor’s letter in relation to a particular health condition.
The trial process had been traumatic for him and prison was going to be difficult for a man of Mr Ryan’s lifestyle and at this stage in his life with his health issues.
It was also going to be a great wrench and loss to his family.
He argued the stigma of this conviction, the adverse publicity arising from it, the loss of public status in light of his position in his family and community and being placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register were significant punishments.
Mr Cody insisted the long period of time since the offences and the other mitigating factors put before the court meant his client was at a “low risk” of re-offending. He appealed to Judge Crowe to impose as lenient a sentence as possible.
Judge Crowe described the offences as “serious.” While the defendant was found guilty of five counts of indecently assaulting Vanessa Merrigan, she noted the offending happened on a regular basis during the period in question. She described it as “systematic abuse over a protracted period of time”.
The offence relating to Sarah O’Connell happened a few years later and was of a similar type of behaviour. The fact the injured parties lived near Mr Ryan was difficult for both of them.
She said the injured parties gave their victim impact statements with “grace and dignity”, very much in the manner of how they dealt with the trial. “Nobody hearing their victim impact statements could be anything but moved.”
She took into account the mitigating factors outlined by the defence. She noted the testimonials and character references that spoke of the extent of his charity work and the impact of this case on his family. But she stressed the only two victims in this case were Ms Merrigan and Ms O’Connell.
She said the sexual assault of children was a “heinous crime”, which had a huge impact on the victims.
“The breach of trust was huge. The powerlessness of the young people who couldn’t say anything; the breach of their innocence is unspeakably wrong.
“The isolation the injured parties must have felt at the offending. They had done nothing wrong. They are the only victims here,” she stressed.
Judge Crowe said the offence of indecent assault carried a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment while sexual assault carried a maximum sentence of five years’ jail. She placed the severity of the offences at the lower end of the mid-range of such crimes.
She considered the indecent assault offences warranted three years’ imprisonment while the sexual assault warranted an 18 months’ sentence.
But she imposed lower sentences in view of the mitigating factors. She imposed two-years concurrent jail terms for each of the five indecent assaults and imposed a 12-month concurrent jail term for the sexual assault offence. The start of the two-year sentence was backdated to November 11, the date Mr Ryan went into custody after the trial.
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